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Shabbat Va-y'chi

6 January 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

A programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday evening entitled ‘How things are done in Odesa’ explored the rich and diverse cultural heritage of this Black Sea city port. 100 nationalities, said presenter Monica Whitlock, forged a living in Odesa, founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great and whose ‘most beloved’ governor was the Duke of Richelieu. Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Italian, and many others lived in what was once an Ottoman harbour, known in its new incarnation as the south-facing ‘new world.’ Odesa became home to jazz musicians, literary giants, including Alexander Pushkin who was banished there in 1823 as a troublemaker, and writer, poet, correspondent and Zionist activist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Not for the first time is Odesa surviving war, famine, and depression of its economy. Once upon a time, the city was the gateway of Russian grain to Western markets. Yet, by the last three decades of the 19th century, the city’s commercial glory – with its Jewish middlemen merchants – began to diminish.  Rival suppliers of grain from Argentina and the United States, as well as Russia’s internal difficulties, caused its sharp commercial decline. Yet the city, its literary, artistic and musical output from jazz to opera, remained pivotal, perhaps not economically, but as a cultural and liberal haven for writers, poets, musicians, with its twenty-four-hour vibrant life that catered for seafarers who crossed the sea and sought out diversion and entertainment when in port.

Odesa, said Whitlock, grew up alongside Jews. They were part of the cultural and commercial landscape. At one point they formed 40% of the population; the writings of great Yiddish writers such as Shalom Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Seforim, Ahad Ha-Am and later on, Izaak Babel, painting a semi-mythical portrait of the city in their evocation of a rich panoply of characters that included armies of beggars and traditional Jews. Odesa, free and easy and liberal, was sometimes contrasted with the more contained, cerebral and scholarly city of Vilna.
Yet all too quickly, life could be swept away by pogroms. They occurred throughout the 19th century, destroying any illusion of Jewish acculturation and assimilation into the cosmopolitan environment of Odesa. The 1905 anti-Jewish pogrom in Odesa was the worst in its history – 400 people were killed and 1,600 properties damaged or destroyed.  Many Jews left Odesa for Western Europe or the United States.

Odesa’s fortunes of the past have made me think of the devastation in Ukraine nearly eleven months after the escalation of Russia’s war in the country. What will it take to bring this invasion of homes, hospitals and schools to an end? 

How is it that war, which terrifies its innocent victims and causes such immense loss and damage, does not terrify those who perpetrate it. Perhaps it does, or perhaps there is a way of numbing oneself against the violence of war, death and destruction.

The Torah states that when the officers address the troops before battle, they shall say: ‘What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house’ (Deuteronomy 20:8). Rabbi Akiva, commenting on the phrase ‘fearful and fainthearted’, explains that it is to be understood to mean that the man is unable to stand in the battle ranks and see a drawn sword because it will terrify him (bSotah 44a).

Akiva, living under Roman occupation, embraced the failed rebellion of Bar Kochba, designating him as ‘son of a star’, a messianic leader.  Roman capture of Bar Kochba’s stronghold at Betar in 135 CE was nothing short of a massacre, the Romans continuing their killing spree, according to the Palestinian Talmud, ‘until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils.’ Shortly afterwards, Akiva and seven other martyrs were captured and executed by the Romans.

As for us, we will continue to sit and tell these stories of our past and of ancient heroes to comfort ourselves with the hope that life was ever thus, but that peace will come one day soon, when troops are exhausted and weapons run out, or when foreign governments intervene and call out time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


The Book of Exodus - In Search of Meaning 

13 January 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

What is a religion? What is the difference between religion and belief? An increasing number of people today declare that they are not religious. Here are some results of the 2021 census in England and Wales:

For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question.

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011. (

Many people will blame the general culture or people for decreasing religious identity. However, I would like to quote a 1955 book by Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel, who saw the same trend and answered these questions differently:

‘It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.’ (Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man (p. 3). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

It is this message that should inspire us, the synagogue people. It is not enough to ask why people do not find religion meaningful. Instead, religion should transform itself and become the place where people feel they make a difference, and places of worship should become the place where people find meaning.

The Book of Genesis presents a coherent story from the world's creation to the details and family tree of Abraham and Sarah’s family. This is the origin story of our people, the family with a revolutionary idea of monotheism. 

Sharon Brous noticed that however consistent the Genesis story is, the Jewish people are mostly formed and shaped by the book of Exodus. She writes: 

‘It is the God of Exodus who teaches humankind to respond to injustice with hope, courage and determination. And it is the story of the Exodus that offers the most potent and undeniable counter-testimony to the reality of our world. Just when the darkness seems to eclipse any light, just when we’re spent, ready to succumb to the triumph of evil, we’re called to remember the great dream that was born with the writing of this epic story.

Because the Jewish people ultimately is not a Genesis people. We are an Exodus people.’ 

What does it mean to be an Exodus people? It is to associate yourself with the oppressed, demand justice, and support the most vulnerable.

In his Yom Kippur Sermon in 1922, Rabbi Israel Mattuck said:
Let us not ask ourselves only: Who is a Jew? Let us ask ourselves: Who is a good Jew? A good Jew is one in whose life being Jewish is a constant influence for good.

May our Judaism be the one of Exodus, an inspiration to make a difference and find meaning, and a constant influence for good.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Igor


Shabbat Va-era

20 January 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

This weekend will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Lily Montagu, founder of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902, the forerunner of Liberal Judaism in the UK. Lily Montagu was one of the ‘three M’s’, along with Claude Montefiore and Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck, architects of Liberal Judaism and founders of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in 1911. She was a founding member and President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and of West Central Jewish Girls’ Club, which became West Central Liberal Synagogue and was based at the Montagu Centre in Central London. The synagogue has now reverted to a club, and its members meet at the LJS on Shabbat afternoons once a month.

Just four days before she died, on January 19th, 1963, Lily Montagu wrote the outline of a sermon, entitled: ‘Seeking and Finding’.  She had just celebrated her eighty-ninth birthday on December 22nd and her eyesight was failing – hence the headings, rather than written texts, which she relied on in order to preach. It may have been her last sermon, had she been able to deliver it.  According to her nephew, Eric Conrad, on Friday evening 18 January, Lily Montagu fell while climbing a flight of stairs in her home. She lapsed into a coma and died four days later, exactly a month after her birthday.

One might have expected her to give a sermon on the Torah portion of the week – Shemot (last week’s parashah) or perhaps even on the Haftarah from Isaiah 27.  But instead, her text is from her favourite chapter in Tanakh, Isaiah 55:6. We know the chapter as the Haftarah for Rosh Hashanah: ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.’ It was a passage that appealed to her religious vision, her emotional and spiritual attachment to the living God. She used the verse as a pretext to speak about the need to pray; it was a call to prayer, ‘to return and draw from our source renewed energy with which to carry on our lives.  We pray, then, for the increase of our spiritual power.’  She found, through prayer, her sustenance and exercise for her spirits, which was required as much ‘as we need food and gymnastics for our body.’  

Constructing the sermon from her notes is something of a challenge because the headings encompass, not only verses from Isaiah 55, but huge themes that seem to sum up all the concerns she cared deeply about in her life. ‘Life and religion’, with its sub-headings: personal, marriage, home, business, recreation and observation; ‘Jewish way of life’, ‘God idea’, ‘Communist countries,’ and an indication of her exploration of the tension between particularism and universalism, between the love of power for its own sake and a yearning towards the ‘kingdom of God’.  She even included the subject of the Quakers, and we must assume that from the time she began to conceive of a liberal form of Judaism intellectually, she was aware, perhaps, of the alignment of Jews and Quakers, especially with respect to their knowledge and embracing of science and medicine, evolution, and the open and questioning approach to religious ideas shared by both communities.

As we reflect on this anniversary of Lily Montagu’s death, coinciding with parashat Va-era, we might ask ourselves, what makes a religious leader? In the Torah reading, Moses attempts to resist God’s call to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites to freedom. His fear and apprehension, his humility and doubts, perhaps even his privileged upbringing in the palace of Pharaoh, equip him, paradoxically, for the role of freedom fighter and lawgiver. And he has one important asset, his brother Aaron who becomes his spokesman and is with him on the journey out of Egypt and into the desert.

I am struck by the similarities with Lily Montagu – a member of the wealthy, Anglo-Jewish elite, helped by the great and good of the Cousinhood, reliant on her sister Marian for help with all the organisational work she undertook, inexperienced and untrained for the social work and religious preaching and teaching that she did throughout her life. And yet, like Moses her stature and responsibilities grew as she took on her work with enthusiasm and absolute devotion.

There is no doubt that those who undertake positions of religious leadership cannot do their duties alone. They require help from family and friends; they need resources, determination, and a vision and faith that what one is working for in life is for the good, not only of themselves, but a greater good for the community, as Lily Montagu wrote, to ‘live up to their faith’ and to attain righteousness and inner peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Please join us on Shabbat morning 21 January to welcome Anna Kislanski, CEO of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, who will be joining us together with David Bernstein, also from IMPJ.  Anna will be giving a D’var Torah during the Shabbat Morning Service


Mental Health Awareness

27 January 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Last Shabbat was marked as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. This initiative of Jami, launched in 2017, aims to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish Community. 

Jami is a British Jewish charity that enriches and saves lives impacted by mental illness in the Jewish community. They guide people through the challenging journey of navigating mental health services, providing emotional support and expert advice.

This year it was marked on 20-21 January, during the Torah portion Vaera, but in previous years it coincided with Shabbat Bo, this week’s Torah portion. In it, we read about the plague of Darkness, the description of which has particular resonance with mental illness. 

The theme of the Mental Health Awareness Shabbat 2023 is “Community”. How does our sense of community help or hinder our mental health? In what ways can we support one another in our community?

According to Jami’s website, here are some numbers: 

•    One in six adults experienced some form of depression in summer 2021, compared with one in five in early 2021. 
•    In a survey investigating how the Covid-19 pandemic affected Jews across the UK, a clear trend was seen with respect to synagogue membership. Mental distress is notably higher among those who are not synagogue members than among those who are. 
•    People with mental health problems are nearly twice as likely as those without to say they have felt unable to cope due to the rising cost of living. 
(Learn more on Jami’s website here)

These are worrying statistics, and it is important to talk about it. As a community, we have a powerful opportunity to help each other. Sometimes there is no need to be implicit, all you need is to be friendly and welcoming to people around you. In other times, there is a need for professional help. In the words of our prayerbook, Siddur Lev Chadash:
“May we never be too mean to give, nor too proud to receive, for in giving and receiving we discover You, and begin to understand the meaning of life” 

Where to get help:
If you or someone you know needs mental health help there are some options for you:

•    Jami Qwell – Safe and confidential sessions with a fully qualified counsellor online via instant messaging. To access this support, please open 

•    Here is the online form to refer yourself to Jami’s support: 

Here is the online form to refer refer someone else to Jami’s support: 

You can also call Jami on 020 8458 2223 and follow the instructions.

•    Ring your GP or out of hours service for an emergency appointment

•    Call Samaritans helpline on 116 123 (any time, day or night)

•    Raphael Jewish Counselling Centre offers professional counselling for individuals and couples with different issues, including depression or anxiety, family breakdowns, panic attacks or eating disorders, low confidence or self-esteem, stress and trauma, issues concerning sexuality and sexual or gender identity, issues connected to the Holocaust or second generation. Raphael offers paid support, but no-one is turned away if they cannot afford the full fee. Confidential freephone number 0800 234 6236 or email 

•    For young people under 35, or if you are worried about a young person, contact Papyrus – a charity which runs the Hopeline UK – on 0800 068 41 41, text 078 6003 99 67 or email More information at 

•    CALM - The Campaign Against Living Miserably, is a movement against suicide and challenging times. They take calls and webchats, from 5pm to midnight every day.  Call 0800 58 58 58 or visit 

We live in a challenging world, but it does not mean you need to cope with everything on your own. In times of darkness, it is important to know that you are not alone. You can get support from many charities and organisations, your community, and your Rabbis. The community is here to support and help you and your loved ones. 

Shabbat Shalom,


Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784